I did not watch President Obama’s address in Cairo because I did not wish to be influenced by his obvious oratorical skills. But I have the speech in cold print and would like to highlight ten weak points from the perspective of a non-Western audience in order to start a discussion on its wider implications.
The reason for this approach is that every audience brings with it a different baggage of history, a different template for interpretation, a different metric of credibility, and a different set of expectations. Thus the reaction of an American audience is likely to be quite different from that of a non-Western audience especially one that has been at the receiving end of America’s pursuits of its national interests.
So, putting myself in the place of such an audience, I tried to identify ten points in the speech that would have come across as particularly weak or unconvincing. These are mentioned here in the order they appeared in the address and not in any order of importance. I ignore here the compulsions that might have forced Obama to say things that might not have rung true with him either.
1. On Stereotypes
In the discussion of stereotypes Obama equated Muslims with the American state. Now clearly it is only the very ignorant or bigoted who stereotype Muslims because Muslims come in all shapes, sizes, colors and convictions. But the American state is a well-defined entity and its interactions with the outside world are a matter of historical record. It is not a pretty record by any means and for people at the receiving end the stereotype seems quite well founded.
For Obama to call it a “crude stereotype” similar in nature to the stereotype of Muslims was a weak attempt at glossing over some ugly truths. A forthright acknowledgment that the American state had too often been on the wrong side of history as far as the rest of the world was concerned would have carried more conviction. Sure, America has been a great source of progress as Obama said but the Internet and the transistor do not make up for the imposition of brutal dictators that take away liberty in return for the fruits of progress.
Roger Cohen was on the mark in reminding Obama a day before the Cairo speech: “Palestinians can be successful software engineers, they can have an espresso in a café and blog on their MacBooks, but they cannot hide from their children that they are powerless in the face of an Israeli teenager holding a gun who may or may not be in a good mood.”
And Obama continuing with “We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words – within our borders, and around the world” would not have resonated with the experiences of his wider non-Western audience.
2. On the Killing of the Innocent
Obama said “we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women, and children.” The audience would have sighed thinking of all the deaths justified as collateral damage in the defense of US interests. Those with memories would have recalled Madeleine Albright’s matter-of-fact assertion that U.S. policy objectives were worth the sacrifice of half a million Arab children. Others would have remembered Brzezinski’s casual disregard for sacrificing some “stirred up Muslims” in order to defeat the Soviet Union. Both these individuals were key representatives of the American state.
3. On Even-Handed Treatment
Obama said: “just as America can never tolerate violence by extremists, we must never alter our principles” and that the trauma of 9/11 has “led us to act contrary to our ideals.” The audience would have wondered why the response to the two violations of ideals was so lopsided: while the extremists are to be wiped off the face of the earth the Americans who acted contrary to ideals are not even to be questioned. The lofty words would not have been able to overcome the skepticism of the listeners.
4. On Israel
Obama stated that America’s bond with Israel is “unbreakable” being based upon “cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.” This was a very strong statement and would have provoked two questions. First, what did the Palestinians have to do with this tragic history? And, second, what does ‘unbreakable’ signify? Is there no line that Israel cannot cross? Did Obama come across asserting that despite all the rhetoric might is right after all?
5. On Violence
Obama’s call on the Palestinians to abandon violence was based on the argument that it was not violence that won full and equal rights for Blacks in the US or in South Africa. Does Obama really believe this? The struggle of Blacks in the US involved the Civil War and urban riots and it was only when Martin Luther King was seen as the least worst of the alternatives that meaningful concessions were made. And how could the protracted and bitter struggle of the ANC in South Africa be ignored? One need not even go back to remind Obama of the French and American revolutions. It would be a great world in which power is gracefully yielded to the oppressed through rational argument. The audience could hope and wish that Obama may succeed in ushering such a world but the rewriting of history would not have gone down well.
6. On God and Religion
The President said: “All of us have a responsibility to work for the day… when the Holy Land of the three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be.” How does Obama know that? Perhaps God intended it to be a place of eternal conflict because He created three hostile religions in such a small space. Was there anything to be gained by making pious assertions that could not be supported by any evidence?
7. On Nuclear Weapons
Obama focused on Iran without saying anything about the nuclear arsenal of Israel. The audience would have interpreted this as a continuation of America’s unbalanced policy in the Middle East.
8. On Democracy
On democracy, Obama said: “we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election.” The audience would have been well aware that America has routinely intervened in the electoral politics of many countries from Latin America, Asia and Africa. An enterprising listener would have pulled up many examples on Google including this poignant one from Guyana. Leaving asides countries like Chile and Pakistan, even elections in Italy have not been immune to manipulation by the US. It would have gone across better if Obama had also said that we would no longer do so in the future.
Obama listed all the human rights and said “those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.” All the listeners would have thought of the US supported dictators who have denied these human rights to all their citizens and wondered if things were really going to change in the future. There would have been a lot of skepticism, no doubt.
9. On Muslim Intolerance
Obama said: “Among some Muslims, there is a disturbing tendency to measure one’s own faith by the rejection of another’s” and “fault lines must be closed among Muslims as well, as the divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence, particularly in Iraq.” Here the wearied audience would have winced at being told to behave and be nice to each other. This would have come across as an oversimplification of religious and social tensions that have occurred everywhere over space and time. If this was to have been mentioned at all, it could have been in the context of trying to understand what lies beneath the emergence of such divisions and how they are exacerbated and exploited. The audience would have recalled the American exploitation of divisions in the course of the Iraq-Iran war.
10. On the Scriptures
Obama concluded by quoting from the scriptures of the three religions of the Middle East. The fact that Obama was addressing Muslims need not have implied that they were particularly susceptible to religious preaching. Obama would have known that the quotes were very selective and those who play this game could equally easily find messages in all the three books that would support completely contradictory positions. This could well have come across as a condescending gesture to an audience that the President felt was particularly prone to religious mumbo-jumbo.
And in the final sentence of his speech Obama reiterated: “The people of the world can live together in peace” following that up with “We know that is God’s vision.” Once again, Obama would have come across to the audience as the imam of the local mosque on a Friday rant using lofty words that signified nothing. How does Obama know what is God’s vision? This would have made the audience shudder having already suffered from the God inspired visions of Obama’s predecessor.